Naomi Mitchison

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Naomi Mitchison, c1920s

Naomi May Margaret Mitchison, CBE (née Haldane; 1 November 1897 – 11 January 1999) was a Scottish novelist and poet. She was appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1981; she was also entitled to call herself Lady Mitchison, CBE since 5 October 1964 (but never apparently used that style herself).


Childhood and family background[edit]

Naomi Margaret Haldane was born at Edinburgh, the daughter and younger child of the physiologist John Scott Haldane and his wife (Louisa) Kathleen Trotter. Naomi's parents came from different political backgrounds, her father being a Liberal and her mother from a Tory and pro-imperialist family. However, both families were of landed stock, and the Haldane family had been feudal barons of Gleneagles since the 13th century, but were nevertheless known for their achievements in other spheres. Today, the best known member of the family is probably Naomi's elder brother, the biologist J.B.S. Haldane (1892–1964), but in her youth her paternal uncle Richard Burdon Haldane, 1st Viscount Haldane, twice Lord Chancellor (from 1912-1915 under Herbert Henry Asquith, and in 1924 during the first Labour government of Ramsay Macdonald), was better known.

Naomi was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford, where she was the only girl.[1] She began a science degree at the University of Oxford, but gave this up to become a VAD nurse during the First World War. After catching scarlet fever, she restarted her science studies as a home student at what is now St Anne's College, Oxford.

In 1916 Naomi married the barrister Gilbert Richard Mitchison (23 March 1894– 14 February 1970), who was a close friend of her brother Jack. He was then on leave from the Western Front of World War I, and like her, he came from a well-connected and wealthy family. Her husband became a QC, then a Labour politician, and eventually a Life Peer as Baron Mitchison in August 1964. They had seven children. Dick and Naomi Mitchison's four sons were Geoffrey (1918–1927, who died of meningitis) Denis (born 1919) later a professor of bacteriology, Murdoch (born 1922), and Avrion (born 1928), both professors of zoology. Their three daughters were Lois, Valentine, and Clemency (who died in 1940 shortly after her birth).

They lived from 1939 at Carradale House at Carradale in Kintyre, where Naomi died in 1999.

Literary career[edit]

Mitchison was a prolific writer, completing more than 90 books in her lifetime, across a multitude of styles and genres. These include historical novels such as her first novel The Conquered (1923) a story set in 1st century BC Gaul during the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar, and her second novel Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925) set in 5th century BC Ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War. Her best work is considered The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) which treats three different societies including a wholly fictional one, and also frankly explores themes of sexuality (daring for its day). Terri Windling described it as "a lost classic".[2] Literary critic Geoffrey Sadler has stated about Mitchison's historical fiction: "On the basis of her early writings, she is unquestionably one of the great historical novelists".[3]

Later works included more historical novels The Bull Calves (1947) about the 1745 Jacobite Rising and The Young Alexander the Great (1960). Mitchison also turned to fantasy such as Graeme and the Dragon (1954; Graeme was her grandson through Denis); science fiction such as Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) and Solution Three (1975); fantasy such as the humorous Arthurian novel To the Chapel Perilous (1955), non-fiction such as African Heroes (1968), together with children's novels, poetry, travel and a three-volume autobiography.

Undoubtedly her most controversial work, We Have Been Warned was published in 1935 and explored sexual behaviour, including rape and abortion. The book was rejected by various publishers, was extensively rewritten to make it more acceptable to publishers, and was still subject to censorship. Maxim Lieber served as her literary editor in 1935.

After her husband's death, Mitchison wrote several memoirs, published as separate titles between 1973 and 1985. She was also a good friend of the writer J. R. R. Tolkien and she was one of the proof readers of The Lord of the Rings.


Mitchison, like her brother, was a committed Socialist in the 1930s. She visited the Soviet Union in 1932 as part of a Fabian Society group, and expressed some misgivings about the direction of Soviet society.[4] Mitchison wrote We Have Been Warned about her experiences during that trip. The book was not successful, nor was her fictionalizing of stories about Jews living under the Nazi regime in Germany and Austria. An active anti-fascist, Mitchison travelled to Austria, where she undertook the risky task of smuggling documents and left-wing refugees out of the country.[5][6] She stood unsuccessfully as a Labour Party candidate for the Scottish Universities in 1935, at a time when universities were allowed to elect MPs. Eventually, as her political candidacy and her pro-Left writings had failed, she gradually became disenchanted with the Left. In 1939, when World War II broke out, Dick and Naomi Mitchison moved to Carradale in Scotland where they spent the rest of their lives. During the war she was active in farming there.[7] At this time she became politically attracted to Scottish Nationalism and increasingly wrote on specifically Scottish issues and themes. Her name was on George Orwell's list, a list of people prepared in March 1949 for the Information Research Department, a propaganda unit set up at the Foreign Office by the Labour government, considered to have pro-communist leanings and therefore be inappropriate to write for the IRD.[8]

Mitchison's advocacy continued in other ways. She acted a spokeswoman for the island communities of Scotland, and became an advisor to the Bakgatla tribe of Botswana.

Mitchison was a Life Fellow of the Eugenics Society. She was also a vocal campaigner for women's rights, advocating birth control, and was also active in local government in Scotland (1947–1976). Her own lack of knowledge about birth control (as stated in her memoirs) led to her interest in the causes of birth control and abortion. Mitchison helped found the first birth control clinics in London. Today, she is best known for her advocacy of feminism and her tackling of then-taboo subjects in her writing. She was a principal investor in the Partisan Coffee House, a meeting place for the New Left off Soho Square that functioned from 1958 to 1962.[9]

Mitchison was also present and supporting a Stop the Seventy Tour rally, aiming to stop the apartheid South African rugby and cricket tours of Britain, in December 1969.[10]

Later life[edit]

Statue of Naomi Mitchison, located in South Gyle, Edinburgh

On 5 October 1964, Dick Mitchison was created a life peer as Baron Mitchison of Carradale in the County of Argyll on retirement for his political work. His wife Naomi thus became Lady Mitchison (as the wife of a Life Peer), but apparently chose not to use the title. Her husband died in 1970, but Naomi remained active as a writer well into her eighties. She was appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1981. Continuing to write into her eighties, she died at Carradale at the age of 101. She was survived by her three younger sons (all scientists) and her two elder daughters, and by several other descendants.



Mitchison's autobiography is in three parts.

  • Small Talk: Memories of an Edwardian Childhood (1973; reprinted, with an introductory essay by Ali Smith, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • All Change Here: Girlhood and Marriage (1975)
  • - published together as: As It Was: An Autobiography 1897-1918 (1975)
  • You May Well Ask: A Memoir, 1920-1940 (1979)


  • The Conquered (1923; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Cloud Cuckoo Land (1925; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2011)
  • The Laburnum Branch (1926)
  • The Fairy who Couldn't Tell a Lie (1927)
  • Anna Comnena (1928; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Nix-Nought-Nothing (1928)
  • The Hostages (1930)
  • The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931)
  • Boys and Girls and Gods (1931)
  • The Prince of Freedom (1931)
  • Powers of Light (1932)
  • The Delicate Fire (1933; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2012)
  • We Have Been Warned (1935; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2012)
  • An End and a Beginning (1937)
  • The Blood of the Martyrs (1939; reprinted in 1989)
  • The Bull Calves (1947; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2013)
  • The Big House (1950; reprinted, with an introduction by Moira Burgess, Kennedy & Boyd, 2010)
  • Travel Light (Faber and Faber, 1952; Virago Press, 1985; Penguin Books, 1987; Small Beer Press, 2005; reprinted in the UK with The Varangs' Saga, and an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Graeme and the Dragon (1954
  • The Land the Ravens Found (1955)
  • To the Chapel Perilous (1955)
  • Little Boxes (1956)
  • Behold your King (1957; reprinted, with an introduction by Moira Burgess, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • The Young Alexander the Great (1960)
  • Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2011)
  • Ketse and the Chief (1965)
  • When We Become Men (1965; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Friends and Enemies (1966)
  • Big Surprise (1967)
  • Family at Ditlabeng (1969)
  • Don't Look Back (1969)
  • Far Harbour (1969)
  • Sun and Moon (1970)
  • Cleopatra's People (1972; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2010)
  • Sunrise Tomorrow: A Story of Botswana (1973)
  • A Life for Africa: The Story of Bram Fischer (1973)
  • Danish Teapot (1973)
  • Oil for the Highlands? (1974)
  • Solution Three (1975; (with Susan Merrill Squier) ; 2011, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd)
  • All Change Here (1975)
  • Snake! (1976)
  • Two Magicians (with Dick Mitchison, 1979)
  • The Vegetable War (1980)
  • Mucking Around (1981)
  • Not by Bread Alone (1983)
  • Early in Orcadia (1987)
  • Images of Africa (1987)
  • As It Was (1988)
  • The Oath-takers (1991)
  • Sea-green Ribbons (1991)
  • The Dark Twin (with Marion Campbell, 1998)


  • The Brave Nurse: And Other Stories
  • The Fourth Pig (1936)
  • Five Men and a Swan (1957)
  • When the Bough Breaks and Other Stories (1924; reprinted by Pomona Press, 2006)
  • Barbarian Stories (1929)
  • Beyond This Limit: Selected Shorter Fiction of Naomi Mitchison (1935; Scottish Academic Press, 1986; reprinted, with an introduction by Isobel Murray, Kennedy & Boyd, 2008)
  • Black Sparta (1928)
  • Cleansing of the Knife: And Other Poems (poems) (1979)
  • What Do You Think Yourself: and Other Scottish Short Stories (1982)
  • A Girl Must Live: Stories and Poems (poems) (1990)


  • The Price of Freedom. A play in three acts (with Lewis Gielgud Mitchison, 1931)


  • Vienna Diary (1934; reprinted by Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Return to the Fairy Hill (1966)
  • African Heroes (1968)
  • The Moral Basis of Politics (1971)
  • The Africans: From the Earliest Times to the Present (1971)
  • Small Talk (1973; reprinted, with an introductory essay by Ali Smith, Kennedy & Boyd, 2009)
  • Margaret Cole, 1893-1980 (1982)
  • Among You Taking Notes... (1985)
  • Rising Public Voice: Women in Politics Worldwide (1995)
  • Essays and Journalism. Volume 2: Carradale (Kennedy & Boyd, 2009) Edited and introduced by Moira Burgess.

Note on her title[edit]

Her title came from her husband, who was made a Life Peer in 1964. Naomi Mitchison was not properly entitled to be called Lady Naomi Mitchison, but was rather Baroness Mitchison of Carradale formally, or less formally Lady Mitchison. She apparently preferred to be known as Naomi Mitchison. Her grandchildren and great grandchildren called her Nou. They often went to Carradale along with the rest of the family for huge family gatherings and holidays.


  1. ^ Carola Oman: An Oxford Childhood (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1976), p. 149. ISBN 0340212659
  2. ^ "Summation 1994: Fantasy," The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eighth Annual Collection, p.xx
  3. ^ Sadler, Geoffrey, "Mitchison, Naomi", in Twentieth-century Romance and Historical Writers, edited by Aruna Vasudevan. London : St. James Press, 1994. (p. 459-462). ISBN 1558621806
  4. ^ "...she (Mitchison) visited the Soviet Union in 1932, but unlike many Fabians, she returned to Britain with some negative impressions of the changes' in Stalin's homeland". Urquhart, Conal. "Writer with an Unquenchable Thirst for Life" (obituary). The Scotsman, January 12, 1999, (p. 3).
  5. ^ Montefiore, Janet. Men and Women writers of the 1930s : The Dangerous Flood of History. Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0415068924 (pp. 17, 60, 202).
  6. ^ Caldecott, Léonie.Women of Our Century. British Broadcasting Corporation, 1984. ISBN 0563202718 (p. 27)
  7. ^ Mitchison, Naomi (1944). "My farming and my neighbours". The Countryman 30: 23–6. 
  8. ^ Ezard, John (June 21, 2003). "Blair's babe - Did love turn Orwell into a government stooge?". The Guardian. 
  9. ^ Bishopsgate Institute Podcast: The Partisan Coffee House: Cultural Politics and the New Left. Mike Berlin, 11 June 2009
  10. ^ 'Sheppard leads rally', Malcolm Dean, The Guardian, 20 Dec. 1969


  • Naomi Mitchison: A Biography by Jill Benton (London: Pandora, 1990)
  • The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison by Jenni Calder (Virago, 1997)
  • Leoni Caldecott, "Naomi Mitchison". In: Women of Our Century (London: Aerial Books, 1984), 11-34.
  • Maroula Joannou, "Naomi Mitchison at One Hundred". Women: A Cultural Review 9.3 (1998), 292-304.
  • Anita Obermeier, "Postmodernism and the Press in Naomi Mitchison's To the Chapel Perilous". Postmodern Medievalisms, ed. Richard Utz and Jesse G. Swan (Cambridge: Brewer, 2004), pp. 193–207.

External links[edit]